If you are new to Lent, you can go to any Anglican, Lutheran, or Roman Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday. Or find another type of church that has an “Ash Wednesday” sign.
None of the traditions listed here require that you be a member to participate in the Ash Wednesday service. Just note that Orthodox churches (Greek, Russian, etc.) have a slightly different calendar, so they often observe Lent in somewhat different ways and different times.
The service will focus on repentance, grace, and forgiveness. The readings include warnings from Isaiah about fasts that God loves. That God wants us to free the oppressed and to walk in justice. They will include Christ commanding us not to do our fasting to be seen by others.
The service will remind us that we are mortal, and that we must repent. You will be invited to come forward and to kneel. A minister will impose ashes upon your forehead, usually saying, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The service will be reverent and quiet. It is intended to be stark. During the service, you will be called upon to join with the whole Church in a Holy Lent. To pray that God will open our eyes to see that we can be honest with him, and repent. To see that we can tell him of our pain and sorrow, and that he understands. He knows because Christ, God himself in the flesh, walked through his own wilderness, and then walked beyond that to the cross.
Fast on Ash Wednesday by eating only one full meal and two small portions, with no meat all day. Fasting is not for those under 14 or over 60, or anyone in poor health. If you cannot fast, give up meat or something else that day. Fasting directs our attention to our need for God and follows the example of Christ. It is an act of penitence, meaning a demonstration of heartfelt repentance.
Again, you do not have to be an Anglican to participate. If your church does not observe Ash Wednesday, you will be welcomed in one of our Anglican churches, without having to be a member or change traditions. We’re all in need of a journey of repentance together.
The Sundays in Lent
The Sundays in Lent follow a journey through the temptation of Christ, the visit of Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the healing of a blind man, and the death of Lazarus. Each of these Sunday readings guide us on a journey toward understanding the healing power of Jesus for our souls, our bodies, and our very lives.
The fourth Sunday in Lent is Laetare Sunday and its color is traditionally rose. Laetare is the Latin word for “rejoice.” This may seem odd in Lent. But with Easter in sight, the idea is to help us rest in the joy and hope of the Resurrection of Christ, even in the midst of our Lenten journey. This “refreshment Sunday” is designed to remind us, once again, that the Feast is the main point. The fast is only there to help us prepare, not to condemn us or weigh us down.
On Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (see Matthew 21:1–11, Mark 11:1–11, Luke 19:28–44, and John 12:12–19).
Many services on Palm Sunday begin with “the Procession of the Palms,” where worshipers hold palm branches as they process into the church.
Sometimes Palm Sunday is also observed as “Passion Sunday,” a commemoration of Jesus’ suffering and death. However, Passion Sunday used to be celebrated on the Sunday before Palm Sunday, the fifth and last Sunday of Lent.
Holy Monday through Wednesday
Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday get the lion’s share of the focus during Holy Week. However, Monday through Wednesday ought not to be forgotten! This is largely because we do not really know exactly what happened on the Monday and Tuesday of the original Holy Week.
We do know that Holy Wednesday has traditionally been called “Spy” Wednesday, as a reference to the “ambush” of Jesus by Judas Iscariot.
Each of these days can be observed however, though worship, prayer, and Scripture reading.
The Triduum or “Three Days”
The Paschal (Easter) Triduum (“three days”) begins on the evening of Maundy Thursday (the liturgical day beginning at sundown, just like in the Jewish calendar). The Triduum includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. It ends at sundown on Easter.
Maundy Thursday commemorates the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (see Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-30; 1 Cor. 11:23-25) and Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet (see John 13:1-15).
“Maundy” is likely derived from the Latin “mandatum” which means “commandment.”
Because Thursday night of Holy Week corresponds to the Last Supper, it includes Jesus saying, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” This is the night of that New Commandment, in other words, it is New Commandment Thursday.
Maundy Thursday services traditionally include a focus on the Last Supper, not only as the beginning of the Triduum (the Great Three Days), but also as the institution of the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist, or Communion). In many places, a foot washing service is included, and the service often ends with the Stripping of the Altar.
Traditionally, there would be no Eucharist on Good Friday. So the altar was stripped of all eucharistic elements on Maundy Thursday. Today, the stripping and washing of the altar is often an integral part of Maundy Thursday at the end of the service.
Interestingly, this tradition developed simply because the altar guilds needed to strip the altar after Maundy Thursday in preparation for the bare, stark altar on Good Friday. People stayed after worship to observe this, and it was soon experienced as a powerful spiritual moment.
Because of this, Maundy Thursday ends with the starkness of the empty, bare altar. Our souls are bare as well, as we begin to walk through the rest of the weekend.
On Good Friday, we remember the events leading up to and including the crucifixion and the crucifixion itself. The Solemn Collects are read, with the leader requesting prayer for a particular purpose (like the salvation of the lost), keeping silence while the people pray, and then “collecting” their prayers in a written prayer. As mentioned above, Eucharist is not celebrated on Good Friday because this is the day in which we try to live in the reality of the brutal starkness of the cross of Christ. In some places, Eucharist is administered from reserved sacrament—consecrated bread and wine that have been set aside during a previous service of Holy Communion.
The Gospel reading for the day is taken from the Passion narrative. It is therefore quite long and is often read slowly and deliberately. The people traditionally stand when Jesus is taken to the cross, and all observe a lengthy moment of silence after Jesus dies. The readings end before the resurrection and the people depart from the church in silence.
On Holy Saturday, before the Easter Vigil, we remember the time that Christ spent in the grave. This is traditionally observed by taking time for silence and meditation upon the death of Christ.
Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday
At the Easter Vigil we gather in darkness, just as the women who went to the tomb went there before dawn.
Our vigil begins in this darkness and the light is carried into the midst of the people, and spreads. We rehearse the story of our redemption. This is the story of the preparation for the Light to come into the world.
As the light grows, we welcome new members into Christ’s church through baptism. In the early church, this would have been the service where the catechumens were baptized and could then receive their first communion.
After the reading of the Story of Salvation, the light blazes as we celebrate the coming of the day of his resurrection, with shouts of Alleluia! And then we celebrate the first Eucharist of Easter.
It’s really pretty amazing. Between covering all of salvation history in a single service, saying “Alleluia!” again for the first time since the beginning of Lent, and celebrating the Resurrection in the early hours of Easter morning, this really is a unique service! Additionally, this is the service at which people were traditionally baptized and welcomed into the Church.
On Easter Sunday, we remember and celebrate the triumphant Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead! Easter Sunday then kicks off a period of 50 days traditionally known as Eastertide—ending with Pentecost Sunday.
The Great Fifty Days of Eastertide
But Easter Sunday is only the beginning! A great fifty-day feast (known as “Eastertide,” “Easter Season,” or “Easter Time,” as well as “Paschaltide,” “Paschal Season,” or “Paschal Time”) kicks off on Easter Day. In the Church Year, this is quite literally fifty days of feasting.
Easter is the high point of the Church Year. So it makes sense that we would party for so long. After all, the main point of the whole gospel is to prepare us for an eternal celebration and feast.
This is reflected in the fact that our Lenten fast only lasts forty days (not including Sundays), while Easter is fifty days. Fasting will pass away, as Jesus said, but the Great Feast of the Lamb will last for ages of ages (a Hebrew into Greek idiom for eternity!).
Why Fifty Days of Easter Time?
After the resurrection, Jesus spent forty days on earth before he ascended, and then there were ten more days after that before the Day of Pentecost.
Luke writes in the first chapter of Acts that Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”
In Acts chapter two, we find the followers of Jesus gathered for the Day of Pentecost, which actually means “fifty.” It happened during the Hebrew feast of Shavuot, which is why the followers of Jesus were gathering. The Hebrew festival was originally a harvest first-fruits celebration, and later it had evolved into a commemoration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
So the Great Fifty Days are a celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and all that means for us, leading to the launching of the Christian Church and its mission on Pentecost. And our Lenten journey prepares us for that.
To learn more about Lent, check out our book: Lent: The Journey from Ash Wednesday through Holy Week, edited by Greg Goebel and Joshua Steele, with a Foreword by Tish Harrison Warren.